Abuse continues to be a significant problem nationwide, shattering the lives of many. It is hard to imagine the domination that the abuser exercises over the abused, the danger that they feel, and the violence and fear that traumatise them. Violence is not a private matter. One cannot draw the curtains and forgive and forget, society must intervene and offer help and comfort. However, sometimes the help offered can be inadequate and illogical. Battered wife syndrome (a condition created by sustained physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse, which creates a variety of physical and emotional symptoms) has been used as a defence in murder cases in which women have killed or harmed their abuser. Although expert testimony regarding battered wife syndrome has gained some acceptance in the courts, it is questionable that it provides enough solid and substantive evidence to be used as a credible defence. The battered wife syndrome defence is more of a demand for compassion and empathy, as one who was battered never deserved such treatment.
The lack of a singular profile, the immorality of “two wrongs making a right”, and the support of a gender hierarchy, makes the use of this syndrome dubious. Battered wife syndrome suggests that the psychological impact of battering is defined by a common set of symptoms, but battered victims reactions to violence and abuse vary greatly and therefore there is no single profile on the effects of battering. Emotional reactions can include changes in beliefs and attitudes about them selves, others and the world, and symptoms of psychological distress or dysfunction. A particular battered victims reaction may or may not meet the criteria to warrant a clinical diagnosis. How can one decide the amount of battering that leads to the ability to plead battered wife syndrome in a court of law when each person reacts differently to being battered. No one can begin to understand each victim of abuse, what they have gone through, or what their breaking point is. Therefore, is it fair to say that just because a person may have been subjected to only one or two episodes of abuse, that the impact of that limited abuse was not enough to have a detrimental effect on their life, and thus not enough to cause them to lash out?
The plea of battered wife syndrome is usually not available to victims who have only been abused a couple times, yet it is possible the psychological effect was the same as a victim of long term abuse. If the label battered wife syndrome is reserved only for victims with specific types of reactions, then using it instead of a diagnosis is confusing, especially since battered wife syndrome is not a recognized diagnostic term in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Violence Against Women 1999). The term battered wife syndrome does appear in several state laws in the United States of America, but its definition is not consistent from state to state. Alternatively, if the term is used more broadly to refer to a range of psychological reactions to battering, as it often is in actual testimony by experts, then its diagnostic utility is lost since there are no clearly defined criteria for inclusion. The question of whether a battered victim “suffers” from battered wife syndrome is not an appropriate question as it’s meaning is vague and can be misleading, thus leaving room for error and misunderstanding.
The criminal justice system is an articulation of the basic moral code of our society. In other words, the law is constantly based on notions of morality. Morality is one of the most important values in shaping the ultimate concept of law, concerning the distinction between right and wrong. Without morals there would be total chaos because every law springs from a system of values and beliefs, every law is an instance of legislating morality. It is illegal to murder or abuse someone, therefore it is surely not morally okay for someone who has been abused to then turn around and become the abuser. They become everything they are trying to escape. The victim in an abusive relationship can easily be compared to a slave and in order to get out of slavery you must use self-defence. However this self-defence does not warrant in death or critical injuries. There are almost always non-violent routes one can take and in the case of abuse there are many options, such as using the law to ones advantage, taking up residence in a safe house and calling for help. It may not be easy to find the courage to leave but if one has been able to survive the detrimental effects of abuse, then one can have the audacity to leave. Options that harm people become morally unacceptable when less harmful options exist.
Murder can never be morally permissible. It can be excused, but not justified. There is an extreme difference. If we ever allow murder to be morally permissible, we violate the most basic right, the right to life. The respect of human life achieves morality, while using deadly, deliberate force against repeated cruelty does not. Although the abuse victim may be robbed of liberty and happiness, they still have the opportunity to regain it because they are alive. Life provides the opportunity to exercise all other rights, and therefore, it is more valuable than all other rights. A victim’s use of deadly force would therefore be disproportionate and morally impermissible as the victim becomes everything they are hiding from. If violence begets violence, it is only a matter of time before civilized society distils down into anarchy. The battered wife syndrome does not give the battered spouse a licence to kill the batterer, as violence is never the answer. For years women have been fighting for equal rights, and great improvements in this area have been achieved, but the use of the battered wife syndrome implies inequality.
The word “syndrome” suggests illness, that there is something wrong with the woman. It carries negative connotations, and there is a tendency for members of the legal community and society at large to interpret battered woman syndrome as some sort of incapacity defense. It implies that women are inferior and need special treatment, as there is no battered man syndrome. Although the defence of battered wife syndrome can be used for both men and women, the name leads one to believe it is focused on women as the name chosen singles out women instead of catering to both genders. This also suggests that women should not be held to the same rigorous legal standards as men, thus supporting a gender hierarchy. Additionally, the inference that sufferers of battered wife syndrome are incapable of choosing a lawful response to their husband’s abuse, also insinuates that men must control their “irresponsible” wives (Coughlin 1994). The battered wife syndrome defence fails, not simply because it holds men and women to different standards, but also because it implies that women do not have the same capacity for self-governance as men.
Yet, the number of women who will be killed by their abusers is far greater than the number of abusers who will be killed by their victims (Battered Women: Living with the Enemy 1994). Abuse is not a victim’s issue it is a human issue. No one chooses to be battered, there is no excuse for abuse and the victims need to have protection available to them. There is aid and help available for the victims of abuse and the law offers a defense, but it is often inadequate. Battered wife syndrome has the potential to be a valid defiance but fails to do so for many reasons. The use of this syndrome as defense is morally questionable.
Abuse is morally wrong and illegal but so is killing someone or hurting them; two wrongs do not ever make a right. The implications behind the phrase, “battered wife syndrome”, not only suggest inequality but also support a gender hierarchy as it holds men and women to different standards. Using a defence that implys women are “less” then men degrades women’s fight for equality. The effects of battery are complex and differ from person to person; because of this there is no clearly distinct set of criteria under which to define “battered wife syndrome”. If these flaws are addressed, then perhaps battered wife syndrome might become a valid defense and aid in putting to rest the sad legacy of pain that abuse causes.
Anne M. Coughlin. Excusing Women. California Law Review, Vol. 82, No. 1, Jan., 1994. http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/3480849?uid=3737720&uid=2&uid=4&sid=21101654055197
Kosof, Anna. Battered Women: Living with the Enemy. New York: Franklin Watts, 1994. Print
Torr, James D., and Karin Swisher, eds. Violence against Women. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven, 1999. Print.